6 Rules for Writing NBC’s Chuck

My latest streaming TV binge: Chuck, the 2007-2012 show starring Jim-from-The-Office lookalike Zachary Levi as an underachieving computer technician in a big box electronics store who gets the CIA master database loaded into his brain.

That’s not a spoiler; it’s the series concept. Plus the show ended two and a half years ago. Spoilers are below, however.

Chuck

To say Chuck was formulaic might be a little unfair. Part of its charm was remixing action and comedy tropes with a bit of a wink. However, there were definite ingredients that showed up with extreme consistency. The frequency of requirements noted here is a bare minimum.

Once per episode

Slow-motion pan of female character

Chuck appeals to guys. Dweeby guys, presumably. An ordinary dude suddenly becoming super-important is a common fantasy and even more common story. And of course this ordinary dude eventually wins the badass hot girl.

On Chuck, the prize is the main character’s CIA handler, Sarah Walker. As such, she is frequently the subject of quarter-speed beauty shots, hair blowing around her, drop-everything rock music accompanying her every stride, camera caressing her from the feet up. Occasionally she got a break, though, to let Chuck’s sister or some other guest star enjoy the ogling spotlight.

Prominent placement of sponsor logo and/or product

Did you know that Subway provided what is euphemistically called in the industry “promotional consideration”? That means they helped fund production of the show in exchange for being seen on it. It actually can help add some realism if it’s done subtly enough; why wouldn’t employees of a retail store regularly grab lunch from the sandwich shop nearby? Why wouldn’t the onsite computer techs of Buy More’s Nerd Herd drive practical, inexpensive, reliable Toyotas?

Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich

My blog has no such arrangement, so here’s a picture of a sandwich I made myself.

On the other hand, why wouldn’t Chuck work for the Geek Squad of Best Buy, after which the setting of the show is clearly modeled? Mixing fake and real brands makes both stand out all the more obviously.

Once every 2-3 episodes

Character lovingly describing sponsor’s product

…especially when it’s more than just a logo here and there. At one point, a character anticipating becoming a father extols the virtues of the Toyota Sienna minivan to his wife, exactly as naturally as is done in commercials. And way more than once, the ingredients of a Subway sandwich are performed like poetry.

At the end of the series finale, Subway straight-up purchases the Buy More, for some reason. Along with Greendale Community College in Community, it makes for quite a bizarre real estate portfolio.

Truly skeezy and criminal behavior passed off as humorous

Fellow Buy More employees Jeff and Lester provide “comic relief”, defined as “using consumer spy equipment to watch women without their knowledge” and “literally licking their lips and touching themselves when hitting on female customers as soon as they walk in the store”. This is cute, not creepy, because gosh, boys, right?

Jeff and Lester being creepy

Yes, in fact, this is a job interview.

For a bonus round, Lester finally faces some consequences when he’s actually arrested for piping car exhaust into the store’s break room. The reasoning behind this plan is too stupid to go into, but he ends up nearly killing someone. Since that wasn’t his intent, though, the victim declines to press charges and he’s out of lockup tout de suite. I’m pretty sure that’s not how attempted murder prosecutions work.

Once per season

Stunt casting for major roles (preferably with obvious referential quote)

Timothy Dalton was undoubtedly Chuck‘s biggest recurring ham, but for winks at the audience, it’s hard to beat lines the writers gave to Linda Hamilton and Scott Bakula, Chuck’s mom and dad, respectively.

Linda Hamilton saying Come with me if you want to live on Chuck

“Come with me if you want to live.” – actual quote

Scott Bakula in Chuck saying Oh Boy

“Oh boy.” – actual quote

Bakula survived four years as the hapless captain of Enterprise without uttering his Quantum Leap catchphrase. Fans begged those writers to put it in. They threw in holodecks and Borg and Ferengi but they resisted cute quotes. Sarah Connor didn’t even SAY that line.

Also, be sure to completely waste Ben Browder’s talents and nerd cred in the third-to-last episode of the series.

MacGuffin given to somebody else (but not a woman if you can possibly avoid it)

The big CIA database is called The Intersect. It’s originally loaded into Chuck by showing him a rapidly-changing series of images, displayed on a computer screen after being sent to him via email. Later versions are loaded via computerized glasses.

Turns out, the human-installable version of The Intersect was invented (and used) by none other than Chuck’s father. Other long-term human Intersects included ally-then-baddie Daniel Shaw; ally-then-baddie-then-ally Hartley Winterbottom, a colleague of Chuck’s father who was turned into the evil Alexei Volkoff for years before the Intersect was removed; and Morgan Grimes, Chuck’s goofy best friend. Noticing a pattern?

Human Intersects in Chuck

Remember the little flip-out doohickey R2-D2 used to hack into the Death Star? That only works for robots.

Aside from a brief test in one male and one female agent, the only woman to ever become a human Intersect was Sarah Walker, and it took until the final few episodes of the series. Oh, and it wiped her memory so it was like her whole relationship with Chuck never happened, but after a day or two she’s all “Kiss me anyway!”

Chuck final scene

Because love is mysterious and eternal, or some crap.

About John "jaQ" Andrews
John "jaQ" Andrews has been writing music and fiction since childhood. He currently writes about technology for a mobile app development company and local alternative newspaper. This site serves as his directory and creative outlet.

2 Responses to 6 Rules for Writing NBC’s Chuck

  1. Mary Kate says:

    Yeah, yeah, tropes and all. But. Adam Baldwin as John Casey? Grunting and worshiping Ronald Reagan and his car? Absolutely the reason to stick it out for most of the series. Yes, I would continue to sign on to see him play variations of Jayne for the rest of his career. Going to go watch the Mudders episode of Firefly now.

    If I remember right, Subway’s sponsorship was part of a fan plea to save the show at one point. They basically bought the show, it seemed.

    And you did “spoil” the ending for me, since I’ve never seen the last season, but I kind of think maybe I won’t ever get around to it.

    • Subway did increase its sponsorship after fans begged them (and ate more subs), but I think it was always involved. That’s how fans knew to go after Subway in the first place.

      Watching Adam Baldwin in Chuck (and Nathan Fillion in Castle) is like being just friends with the gorgeous ex you only ever got to kiss once.

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